Monthly Archives: May 2014

Spot the difference

One of my early memories of my schooldays is of a flickering film in a classroom in a small school in Lasswade, Scotland.

Rictus (noun) The gaping of the mouth – often restricted to the corners of the mouth.

Cartoon for leopard storyWallace of Wallace and Gromit and Ed Milliband of the Labour Party are masters of the rictus grin. And so is, when faced with a situation of ambiguity, my grandson; the sort of situation which could be considered serious and yet, equally, could be seen as funny. When I was about the same age as my grandson an event at school placed me in the same dilemma.

Our teacher, Miss McIntosh announced with great enthusiasm (and to our unbridled delight) that instead of arithmetic we would be shown a film about leopards. I had seen leopards close up in Edinburgh Zoo peering dolefully but menacingly at me through the bars of their cage. A nature documentary wasn’t my film of choice but I was elated about missing couple of hours of the torture of multiplication tables

The projector clattered into action and pictures flickered through the dust motes. A small village was suddenly large on the screen and the camera panned around to focus on a group of beings with the most grotesquely deformed limbs and faces. We were now totally absorbed by the horrific scene, the absence of leopards forgotten. This was enthralling stuff.

Pith helmetAs children we were quite accustomed to this level of horror. Saturday matinees at the local cinema, The Regal, known locally as the Flea Pit, served up, along with mandatory flea bites, two distinct film genres: The Wild West featuring men in big hats, six shooters and Apache Indians or African films featuring men in pith helmets, large elephant guns and monsters in murky lagoons. I imagine Miss McIntosh enjoyed a more sensitive genre of film.

Miss McIntosh, who had clearly taken leave of her senses to think a film about lepers was suitable for seven year olds soon literally did lose her senses. Hearing her gasp “Oh no! Oh god, these poor, poor people!” I looked up to see her with her fist jammed in her mouth as she swooned, slid down the wall and performed a slow, sliding tackle on my chair worthy of a yellow card. This was my ambiguous situation; serious yet at the same time funny. I turned to look at my classmates to see a row faces reflecting my rictus grin.

In the way that my granddaughter is 9 going on 39 girls even then displayed the same sense of maturity beyond their years. While I sat immobilised, entangled with Miss McIntosh’s sturdy legs Gwendoline¬†Criddle and Margaret Duncan rushed to our teacher’s aid (Or, at least to stand and discuss the crisis over her inert body like indecisive paramedics) while Betty the class swot ran frantically for help.

Miss McIntosh was absent for a while and when she eventually resumed her duties no mention was made of lepers or indeed leopards.


A land far, far away

Many of the people that I teach to drive are migrants from Africa. They are inspiring, gracious people with good hearts. This is a story about Yonas from Ethiopia.

Ethiopia WaterfallEthiopia, the origin of the coffee bean has many claims to fame. It is the most populous landlocked country in the world, the second most populated African state, one of the oldest known locations of human life and the only African country to defeat a colonial power. Named twice in the Iliad and three times in the Odyssey it is the fifteenth poorest country in the world, which is why, I imagine, my driving school pupil Yonas is here, living in the UK.

Yonas a farm worker, made his own odyssey here by way of Italy where he lived and worked for a while to earn the fare for the last leg. I suspect he made the same perilous voyage over the Mediterranean that sometimes ends in terrible loss of life.

Like all the Ethiopians I know, Yonas is a dignified, intelligent and proud person. He works hard, when he can find work and lives in an uninspiring tower block named Scargill Heights. Sometimes I wonder, waiting in the car park for Yonus, if Arthur Scargill has the lifetime use of an apartment here along with his Barbican pad, courtesy of the Mineworkers Union.

Certainly, Arthur would not share Yonas’s views. In one of our discussions he berated the Italians for being a work-shy lot then offered his opinion that we were an idle lot too. “Welfare, it is no good,” he opined, “it makes the British very lazy people.” Perhaps this judgement has been coloured by personal lack of qualification for welfare hand-outs or maybe he had been reading a Conservative manifesto pamphlet that had been pushed through his letterbox.

Yonas is quiet and I don’t like to pry but occasionally during a driving lesson events cause him to open up, to reveal fragments of his life. One day I was covering the emergency stop routines. To teach this it helps to add urgency by asking the pupil to imagine a child suddenly running out in front of the car. Often it helps to make the exercise more real in the pupil’s mind to make the imaginary child their own.

“Do you have any children, Yonas?” I enquire.

“Yes, a son,” he replies.

“How old is he?”

“His name is Louis, he is now seven years.”

“Okay, Yonas let us pretend Louis is the child and you have to stop as quickly as possible.”

We do the emergency stop a few times with Yonas picturing his young son running out in front of the car. I congratulate him on his performance that he stopped well before hitting his son.

“You will be able to tell Louis that you nearly ran him over today!” I joke.

“I cannot do that Sandy, my son he still lives with his mother, my wife in Africa,” he answers in a voice tinged with sadness, “I have not seen them for three years.”

Ethiopia hutsThree years. This is not a fragment of his life, it is a shard. With heavy hearts we drove back to Scargill Heights a continent away from his family, his country, his life.

Like many people I worry, I have opinions about Britain being able to cope with immigration, the practical problems of sharing our land, our lifestyle with foreigners. But this is Yonas my friend. He loves his country which he describes as a place of beauty. His family are real people with the same dreams and desires as we all have. There is no easy answer to all of this.